A few days ago, another great space-exploration feat has been achieved. Curiosity landed on Mars, ready to carry out the Mars Science Laboratory mission. What is it going to do up there on the red planet? The answer, from the NASA website:
The overarching science goal of the mission is to assess whether the landing area has ever had or still has environmental conditions favorable to microbial life, both its habitability and its preservation.
Of course, it’s going to do lots of other things as well, but looking for traces of (past?) life is one of its tasks that speaks to the imagination of many people. And indeed, in the past few decades, the life sciences have found their way into space-exploration efforts. Lo and behold, astrobiology arose.
But, is this a valid scientific discipline, or just a buzzword that appeals to some intrinsic need to answer the question of whether we are truly alone in this wonderful universe (and to funding agencies)? Put more concretely: is the MSL mission worth the investment? A question asked by CNN, with this marvelous answer provided by Milky Way Musings:
More generally, the usefulness of astrobiology is addressed in an opinion piece in Nature this week, which, I think, presents a nuanced and legitimate view.
One issue is that astrobiology could lead to wild, unfounded speculations as evidence of life outside of earth has yet to be produced:
In the absence of unambiguous proof for its existence, almost nothing can be said about extraterrestrial life about which the opposite is not also true.
However, in itself, that shouldn’t stop us from enquiring about this most delightful of mysteries:
The lack of evidence should not inhibit us in the slightest, but unless we are bound by the highest academic standards and critical attitudes, astrobiological discussions will become nothing more than empty speculation laced with a formidable disregard for scientific plausibility.
Another problem is that astrobiology is often falsely thought to be confined to just the search for life, while it’s actually a lot more:
A common misconception is that astrobiology is equivalent to the search for life elsewhere… In fact, the search for life beyond Earth is just one subset of astrobiology.
Finally, why look for life on other planets, when there is still so much to learn about life on our pale blue dot?
Yes, there is still much to learn about the specifics of terrestrial organisms, but our understanding of life as a phenomenon and of biology as a science will be greatly advanced by finding a second, separate origin that can help to put what we observe here on Earth in context.
Leading to the wonderful conclusion:
It’s time for biology’s great experiment. It’s time to learn whether we live in a biological Universe or one in which life on Earth is a singularity.
- Astrobiology should be subjected to the same stringent standards as other scientific disciplines.
- It’s not just about E.T.
- We shouldn’t forget about life on our own little planet.
- Astrobiology is useful (and very interesting, so yeah, I might be a bit biased).
So, is astrobiology ‘worth it’? Yes.
Of course, there are other issues as well. What is life exactly? How should we look for it? And, if it’s radically different from what we know, would we even recognize it when we find it? (For more on those issues, see these previous posts: The Multiverse and Our Form of Life; Life, Bit by Bit and Biological Dark Matter and the Shadow Biosphere.)
Nevertheless, expanding our scope beyond earth will not just contribute to our understanding of life, but might even prove necessary for our survival.
…To the stars!
Lazcano, A., & Hand, K.P. (2012). Astrobiology: Frontier or fiction Nature DOI: 10.1038/488160a